By Kassim Afegbua
The agitation for the convocation of what some called Sovereign National Conference has been around us for a long time and particularly gained currency in the last ten years. Some of the agitators with all their political and intellectual pedigree still show a remarkable lack of understanding of the socio-political dynamics of the country, especially the intricate logic of being a country of several configurations.
I have watched with very keen interest the twists and turns of the debate for and against the convocation of a sovereign national conference and I have come to the conclusion that in a country with Babel-like tongues and tribes, it is usually difficult to come to agreement on issues except if it is one that cuts across geopolitical divides. In other words, if it is an issue that knows no boundary, ethnic conclave, geo-political consideration, and tribe, there is the likelihood that such an issue will receive greater attention and unanimity of purpose.
The National Summit held in Lagos few days ago reminded me of the fact that Nigerians are never organized in anything they do. They work from answer to question. Having already known their destination, they will try to assemble their usual crowd to justify the pay and would end up allotting two or three minutes to the Speakers. That ends the story. How much of Nigeria’s problems could be discussed in three minutes? How do you allot such time to a personality like Balarabe Musa from Kaduna State and you expect him to speak from his bottom of heart about Nigeria’s problem? I do not personally think that Nigerians lack ideas about the prevailing problems in our midst. I do not think also that Nigerians lack knowledge about what to do to arrest the drift and move the nation forward. It is just that nobody is ready to bell the cat. Who is ready to confront the evil of corruption and other sharp practices? Who amongst us is ready to denounce corruption in its true sense so that the nation could freely engage her intellectuality to move forward?
Rather than continue this over-used debate for sovereign national conference, we should be talking about Suffering Nigerians Conference. Suffering in itself has become the only “irredeemable” theme on the menu list of Nigeria’s developmental initiatives. It cuts across all tribes, tongues and ethnic configurations. It wears the look that is familiar to all of us. Suffering is a metaphor for our collective failure and inability to meet up with the challenges of adding value to our collective existence. The symbols and symptoms of suffering do not recognize where one is coming from.
From North to South, East to West, the country can graciously boast of millions of suffering people who will gladly embrace the urge for dialogue in whatever name insofar there are assurances that life would be better for them. Poverty has been a permanent feature amongst us; want has been its motivator while hunger has been its stimulator. We are not talking about poverty of ideas, but that of lack in what keeps the body and soul streaming in life’s bramble forest.
So when the issue of sovereign national conference is being tabled for discussion, we should be more interested in what becomes the lot of the suffering masses and not this idea of creating bogus platforms to further the interest of the elite cult at the expense of the masses. Said differently, the millions of naira that was reportedly spent in the Lagos Jamboree for example could as well be used to add value to the lives of ordinary Nigerians who cannot eke a living. Such a gathering of who is who in Nigeria, telling us what we already know is to me an exercise in mercantile pedagogy. The gathering is as meaningless as the recommendations they offer.
For example, who does not know that Nigeria is not practicing true fiscal federalism? Do you need a national conference to remind anyone that the country is suffering from developmental inertia? Or how do we explain away the fact that corruption has become our second nature at both corporate and individual levels? Do we need a national conference for anyone to know that Nigeria’s political future should be based on strong and virile leadership with a clear understanding of our peculiarities as a nation of possibilities?
Do we need a national conference for us to stop the acquisitive mentality of a few against the greater need of the majority? Even those who argue about or question our continued existence as one nation thus making insinuations about the possibility of a break up are also not sincere in their heart of hearts. Given our present plunge into the journey of life, I find it eternally unthinkable for anyone to be thinking about breaking up; such a word as simplistic as it sounds, but as complex with varied dimensions as it could be.
Nations that have kissed the dust of break-up are still trying to pick up their pieces. It is either that they are confronted with new challenges of managing other provoking issues or it is that they have not been able to find their footing the way they envisaged it. The political economy of break-up in contemporary political discourse is not a topic to be treated in a hurry. It is a topic for all seasons; a discourse that would not be wished away by just being called a new nation.
As I write this, I am quite aware of the intellectual ingenuity of some of the proponents of sovereign national conference, but I have a strong feeling that the principles of democracy are themselves self-defining as they are participatory. They allow for cross-fertilization of ideas under a structured political system with identifiable goals and objectives to be achieved under the constitution. The National Assembly can graciously play the role of an executor of the sovereign national conference discourse to the extent that we may not need to select or elect leaders that would speak for or represent their ethnic nationalities any more.
Members of the National Assembly could receive memoranda from the public and subject such viewpoints and suggestions to serious debate and analysis in a way that will not jeopardize our unity and oneness as a nation. If we want something that is independent of the National Assembly, how do we select or elect the representatives to speak on behalf of the ethnic nationalities.
I could still recollect the Constitutional Conference of the Abacha era and how Chief Gani Fawehinmi was roundly defeated in his home town; Ondo by Chief Bayo Akinnola, and how he later condemned the entire exercise as government-induced conference. The same scenario played out during Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s political reform conference which ended up as a political jamboree where people were fighting for money. Nigeria’s so-called leaders could not agree on simple matters that would move the nation forward. They were busy looking at issues from their parochial perspectives and championed their clannish interest as against national interest.
For want of something to do since this government is not stimulating enough, President Jonathan may decide to acquiesce to the demands of the sovereign national conference initiators. That would be a good distraction to keep public discourse under heat and insulate the President from any accusation that he does not want Nigerians to dialogue.
The type of conference I want to see is the one by the majority of the Suffering Nigerians who ordinarily would be united by one common denominator; suffering. Such a conference will give the helpless and hapless citizen the opportunity to ventilate his anger against government and will also proffer solutions to our multi-faceted problems in a bid to stimulate better living standards through the instrumentality of government-driven initiatives. One can be rest assured that such conference will be a platform for getting the right solutions to our problems; those who feel the pangs of suffering and poverty, know exactly how it feels.
The millions of Nigerians suffering under the scotching sun from the dawn of day to the setting of the sun will be able to confront government with their problems so that the much needed attention could be given to them.
The unemployed and able-bodied youths who parade the corridors of offices every now and then in search for employment, will be proud to be members of a conference that is set to address their pitiable plights. Instead of convoking a platform where all the old and spent political forces will be dozing off on the altar of public discourse, we should be talking about Suffering Nigerians Conference where the real people who feel the pains of bad governance will air their views.
If you ask me genuinely, I do not think a man like Chief Edwin Clark could render any meaningful thought about the country’s future any more. Aside from being a spent political force, his energy cannot carry him through the rigorous exercise of serious political debate and brainstorming sessions.
The man will simply sleep off the better part of his time. Ditto for people like Balarabe Musa, Chief Olu Falae, Dr. Tunji Braithwaite, and a host of other old political ideologues who are desperate to keep their body and soul fully exercised with the temptations of dialogue. Get me those angry and hungry Nigerians, and you would imagine the therapy of their contributions. Such persons with younger age brackets will be able to define their future without equivocation.
They will be able to decide whether they want to continue to suffer or they want to shy away from engaging in anti-social activities that would continue to undermine the nation. In literal sense, you could find such “hungry” and “angry” suffering Nigerians everywhere. But I will rather wish that the National Assembly organize such a conference, than allowing some job seeking and self-professed public affairs analysts to engage such a process.